Just Identifying Individuals with Forensic Genetic Genealogy

Just Identifying Individuals with Forensic Genetic Genealogy

Original Release Date: September 9, 2022

In episode one of our Applications of Forensic Science for Human Identification season, Just Science sat down with Dr. Heather McKiernan, a Research Forensic Scientist at RTI International, and Ashley Rodriguez, a Research Public Health Analyst at RTI International, to discuss the use of forensic genetic genealogy in identifying human remains.

Oftentimes, unknown human remains are recovered fully or partially skeletonized with no close biological relatives in CODIS to facilitate identification. Therefore, combining non-traditional DNA testing with genealogical methods and research has become a powerful investigative tool to bring closure to families. Listen along as Dr. McKiernan and Ashley discuss how forensic genetic genealogy differs from searching a DNA profile in CODIS, what limitations exist when using DNA technologies to identify unknown remains, and the importance of familial reference samples.

This episode of Just Science is funded by the National Institute of Justice’s Forensic Technology Center of Excellence (Award #: 15PNIJ-21-GK-02192-MUMU).

Some content in this podcast may be considered sensitive and may evoke emotional responses, or may not be appropriate for younger audiences. 

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Episode Citation

McKay, J., McKiernan, H., & Rodriguez, A. (2022, September 9). Just Science. Just Identifying Individuals with Forensic Genetic Genealogy. [Audio podcast episode]. The Forensic Technology Center of Excellence.

Guest Biography

Dr. Heather McKiernan is currently a Research Forensic Scientist at RTI International. She serves as the Forensic Services Program Manager for the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs) where she facilitates forensic genetic genealogy testing for unidentified human remains samples. She received her M.S. in Forensic Science from Arcadia University and her Ph.D. in Biological Sciences from the University of Denver. Prior to joining RTI, Dr. McKiernan’s professional experience spanned academia, research, casework, and executive leadership. She has worked as the Director of graduate forensic science programs at Arcadia and Thomas Jefferson Universities, Director of a non-profit forensic laboratory, and a forensic genetics consultant. Dr. McKiernan is a former member of the Biology Data Reporting and Interpretation DNA subcommittee of the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s (NIST) Organization of Scientific Area Committees for Forensic Science (OSAC) and current co-chair of the 2022 Congress of the International Society of Forensic Genetics (ISFG). 

 Ashley Rodriguez is a Research Public Health Analyst with RTI International, where she has primarily served as a Forensic Science Advisor on the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative (SAKI) Training and Technical Assistance program since 2021. Prior to joining RTI, Ms. Rodriguez spent over 12 years working at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). The majority of her NCMEC career was spent serving as a Senior Forensic Case Manager, providing training and technical assistance to law enforcement and medical examiners/coroners working cases involving unidentified child remains. She has extensive experience collaborating with law enforcement to resolve highly sensitive cases using a variety of technical and forensic resources, including forensic genetic genealogy. In April 2022, Ms. Rodriguez planned and facilitated the U.S. Department of Justice – Bureau of Justice Assistance Forensic Genetic Genealogy Virtual Training. Ms. Rodriguez obtained a B.A. in Psychology and Cognitive Science in 2007 from the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. She received an M.A. in Forensic Psychology in 2008 from Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia.   

The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this podcast episode are those of the presenter(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of Justice.

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